The sight of a school stairwell stirs memories of “The Annual Visit,” taking me back to my childhood days. A mysterious lady enters the classroom, sits quietly, and listens as students take turns reading aloud. A designated few exit the room with her. I’m never selected. Why?! I know she conducts small classes in the expanse under the stairwell. What am I missing? In that corner lined with books, I imagine pursuing pages about obscurities like the pyramids of Egypt. Later, I notice one of my friends sitting beside the mysterious lady in the stairwell . . . This scene provokes yet another memory: hours of playing school, toiling to “teach” my friend how to spell, her melée of effort in reading my “assignments” that came so easily to me . . . Unwittingly, I was a first-hand witness of this struggle before I even knew it had a name: dyslexia.
Now, in 2020, research beams brightly in that curious corner as education moves dyslexia from under the stairwell. Dyslexia Awareness Month is an appropriate time to review this progress. So, what have we learned about dyslexia’s causes? How do we determine its presence? How do we support students with dyslexia as well as their parents? Conclusive answers have not been fully identified, and more reflection is needed; however, results inform new perspectives in data analysis and use of accommodations and resources to support student success.
What have we learned from research findings thus far?
Advancements in brain imaging expand our understanding of distinct brain characteristics associated with dyslexia. Among myriads of research, diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI) reveals size and organizational differences in the pathways of left-hemisphere white matter associated with phonemic awareness (Saygin et al, 2013). Functional imaging (fMRI) uncovers reduced neural capacity to grasp new auditory and visual information (Perrachione et al, 2016). These dyslexia-related differences are observed across all cultures and languages.
Have there been any remarkable research developments?
Check this out! Intervention-based studies such as Yeatman & Huber (2019) have documented changes in brain anatomy and function as a result of intervention, building the brain’s storage of phonological and orthographic information centers. Likewise, intervention practice strengthens coordination of the brain’s phonological and orthographic networks. As protagonists, advocates of brain plasticity turn tragedy into triumph by supporting evidence-based interventions with appropriate focus, methods, and duration.
What interventions are needed for students with dyslexia?
Explicit and systematic characteristics of evidence-based interventions such as structured literacy accentuate structural components of language such as phonology, orthography, morphology, syntax, semantics, and discourse. Multisensory interventions integrate visual, auditory, and tactile modalities through listening, speaking, reading, and writing using manipulatives and routines. This makes abstractions such as phoneme manipulation more concrete for the student with dyslexia. Changes in brain anatomy and function – equally detectable in adults and children – are documented just after eight weeks of targeted evidence-based interventions (Yeatman & Huber, 2019). More progress to commemorate!
What accommodations support students with dyslexia?
While accommodations do not replace appropriate interventions or remediation for students with dyslexia, they do provide critical support to ensure success. Presentation accommodations offer students opportunities to access text in alternate ways such as placement of fewer items per page, text highlighting, and use of text-to-speech software to support decoding and reading comprehension. Response accommodations provide options such as dictate-to-scribe and point-to-response to complete writing activities, assignments, and assessments. Setting accommodations alter conditions of the assignment or assessment. Finally, time and scheduling accommodations change amounts of the allotted time for student task completion. This can include multiple sessions (instead of one) or allow students more frequent breaks (as appropriate).
The most successful accommodations are those practiced and routinely used during both instruction and assessment. Extended time has little value if the student does not know what to do with it. Restrictions and requirements vary from state to state or district to district, but accommodations written into a student’s IEP or 504 plan will ensure those options remain available.
What is the process of identifying students with dyslexia?
Early identification of dyslexia is vital. Increasingly more states and school districts have been utilizing brief screening assessments for all primary-grade students when determining potential risk of dyslexia. If screening results indicate such a risk, then a dyslexia diagnostic is administered. With early detection an attractive prospect, Powers et al (2013) at the Yale School of Medicine identified key alleles – known as Regulatory Elements Associated with Dyslexia (READ1) – that interact with a gene group associated with reading disability. Perhaps one day education will encounter a genetic-inspired diagnostic; however, currently, dyslexia diagnosis is best viewed as tentative during the initial stages of intervention.
More states provide dyslexia guidance and screen for potential risk:
- Alabama: (2020) https://www.alsde.edu/sec/ari/Dyslexia/DRG%2010-16-2020.pdf#search=dyslexia
- Georgia: (2019) https://www.gadoe.org/Curriculum-Instruction-and-Assessment/Curriculum-and-Instruction/Documents/Dyslexia%20Informational%20Handbook%20Final.pdf
- New Jersey: (2017) https://www.state.nj.us/education/specialed/dyslexia/NJDyslexiaHandbook.pdf
What are the challenges of diagnosing dyslexia?
A young struggling reader may initially “fit the profile” of dyslexia but respond quickly to intervention, indicating a potential issue with previous instruction rather than an actual reading impairment. Unfortunately, misdiagnoses can occur through the use of single-factor definitions that decrease diagnostic reliability. Examples of single-factor definitions include discrepancies in IQ-achievement assessment results or single screening cut-off scores in Response to Intervention (RTI). The constellation model integrates a “constellation of symptoms and indicators,” such as impaired phonological processing, genetic risk, and environmental influences (Wagner, Spencer, Quinn, & Tighe, 2013). This combination reduces the impact of measurement error (Wagner et al., 2011), increasing diagnostic reliability.
What does this mean for students?
Commitments to root-cause discoveries and instructional refinements have changed the way dyslexia is evaluated and addressed in classrooms throughout the world. Dyslexia Awareness Month is a time to recognize dyslexia advocates leading the way to improved outcomes for all students. It is a celebration of those who have confronted dyslexia’s challenges, empowering themselves and others. As dyslexia continues to emerge from “under the stairwell,” imagine all of the new progress we can celebrate by Dyslexia Awareness Month in 2021. Advocacy has no time to lose or efforts to waste. In contrite silence, Potential awaits . . . in their curious corners.
What resources are available to support children and families encountering dyslexia?
- Council for Exceptional Children, Division for Learning Disabilities: https://www.teachingld.org/topics/reading/
- International Dyslexia Association: https://dyslexiaida.org/
- Learning Disabilities Association of America: https://ldaamerica.org/
- Learning Disabilities OnLine: http://www.ldonline.org/indepth/reading
- National Center on Improving Literacy (NCIL): https://improvingliteracy.org/topic/dyslexia
- National Center for Intensive Interventions (NCII): https://intensiveintervention.org/intervention-resources/literacy-strategies
- National Center for Learning Disabilities: https://www.ncld.org/?s=dyslexia
- National Comprehensive Center (NCC), Region 6: https://bit.ly/3oBiFTf
- Meadows Center: https://www.meadowscenter.org
- Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity: http://dyslexia.yale.edu/research-science/ycdc-research/
Lead Author: Ruth Gumm, firstname.lastname@example.org
Region 7 Comprehensive Center
Research Associate, RMC Research Corporation
Contributing Author: Kim McWhirter, email@example.com
Region 7 Comprehensive Center
Research Associate, RMC Research Corporation
Special thanks to R7CC Literacy Team member, Patricia Cox, and RMC Publishing Editor, Kimilee Norman-Goins, for their support and feedback.
Perrachione, T. K., Del Tufo, S. N., Winter, R., Ghosh, S. S., Christodoulou, J. A., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2016, December 21). Dysfunction of Rapid Neural Adaptation in Dyslexia: Neuron. Neuron: Dysfunction of Rapid Neural Adaptation in Dyslexia. https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(16)30858-3.
Powers, N. R., & Eicher, J. D. (2013, July 11). Alleles of a Polymorphic ETV6 Binding Site in DCDC2 Confer … cell.com. https://www.cell.com/ajhg/fulltext/S0002-9297(13)00221-8.
Saygin, Z. M., Norton, E. S., Osher, D. E., Beach, S. D., Cyr, A. B., Ozernov-Palchik, O., … Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2013, August 14). Tracking the Roots of Reading Ability: White Matter Volume and Integrity Correlate with Phonological Awareness in Prereading and Early-Reading Kindergarten Children. https://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/33/13251.
Wagner, R. K. (2018, December 18). Why Is It So Difficult to Diagnose Dyslexia and How Can We Do It Better? International Dyslexia Association. https://dyslexiaida.org/why-is-it-so-difficult-to-diagnose-dyslexia-and-how-can-we-do-it-better/.
Yeatman, J. D., & Huber, E. (2019, January 1). Sensitive periods for white matter plasticity and reading intervention. biorxiv. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/346759v3.